1 Corinthians 14:15
What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit…
We have chosen the language of the text as fitted to lead our attention to two distinct objects, both of the greatest importance in reference to prayer, viz., that Divine influence by which it is directed and rendered effectual to its end, and that correspondent exercise of our own faculties necessary to our availing ourselves fully of the assistance thus afforded — "praying with the Spirit, and praying with the understanding also." To perceive the full force of the text, it is essential to glance at its original reference. The apostle is here speaking of those miraculous gifts which were, at that period, bestowed so extensively upon the Church. Those gifts were various, and were all indications of the immediate operation of the hand of God. Some were qualified to impress one order of minds, some another. Some were for signs to the infidel world around; some for confirmation and improvement to the believers themselves. Amongst this last class one of the most striking and peculiar was the gift of tongues, the wonderful power of speaking, in a moment, languages before unknown. Connected with the gift of tongues was certainly, in many cases, that of immediate inspiration — the knowledge of things either future or otherwise beyond the thought and cognisance of the individual; and it would seem that, when speaking in a foreign tongue thus miraculously imparted, the thoughts of the Christian preacher were much less under his personal and private control than when addressing those around him in his own language. He had surrendered himself, so to speak, to the immediate and exclusive guidance of the inspiring Spirit. A gift of such a nature would be especially liable to abuse. Not only from ostentation, and as it was an evidence of superiority or an accredited testimonial of office, but from other causes also, connected with the imperfection of human nature, there would be much danger of its undue and unprofitable display. In opposition to this great abuse, the apostle, writing to the Corinthians, amongst whom, from various causes, it seems to have been previously prevalent, declares that though he was endowed beyond all others with this miraculous gift, he would "rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might teach others also, than ten thousand in an unknown tongue." The one of these things he calls speaking with the Spirit, the other with the understanding. I need scarcely remark that the age of inspiration is past, and the wonderful gift we have been considering is bestowed no more upon the Chinch.
I. We come, then, TO DESCRIBE THE MEANING AND NECESSITY OF "PRAYING, WITH THE SPIRIT" — that is, as we have endeavoured to express it, of cherishing an entire dependence on the grace and sacred operations of this Divine agent in all our addresses at the throne of mercy. The necessity of this dependence is a topic on which we must not enlarge; it is universally known and admitted by all men of piety. All the order and propriety of language and all the appropriateness of the most accurate and solemn petitions will, as they at once perceive, avail nothing without this influence. What is it, then, to pray with the Spirit? We answer, while it is certainly to model our devotions in all things in such a manner as to indicate our humble dependence on a Divine agency, it is especially to have that state of heart and those feelings of piety and ardour and spirituality which such agency must ever be qualified to produce. The great characteristic of the exercise will probably be fervour and, earnestness in asking for those things which may most conduce to the increase of our Christian purity and to our performance of all the will of God. We cannot suppose that a man under the immediate band of the living Spirit of God can be cold and languid in his devotions. He that prays with the Spirit will be filled with a holy fire that cannot but inflame and kindle the highest powers of the soul. Prayer thus offered will often partake of that character so strikingly illustrated in the history of Jacob when be wrestled with the angel until the dawning of the day. When we express before the throne our sorrow for sin or our longing desire for pardon we shall surely, if praying with the Spirit, be humbled in a very signal manner, as into the dust. Our strongest abhorrence will be excited against ourselves for our deep and aggravated guilt. Sin will appear to us exceeding sinful. It will not be with a light or hypocritical feeling that we now confess ourselves to be the chief of sinners. To pray with the Spirit will often be attended with a sacred and elevated pleasure, such as we cannot but ascribe to the experience of the Divine favour and the direct influence of the Saviour's love. The exercise, which we have at other times felt to be a burden, and rejoiced as speedily as possible to lay aside, will now afford us a rich and peculiar delight. It is thus that we realise the apostle's description, "praying in the Holy Ghost," and in such instances there is little difficulty in tracing out the evidences of His operation. That operation, however, may be often present when it is not thus discernible. But the language of our text leads us to inquire again, How must we avail ourselves of this assistance, and what is it for us to be able to say, "I will pray with the Spirit"? That such influence is sometimes mercifully imparted probably none will deny; but then the question may present itself, How must it be obtained? I can imagine that some may say. "I would to God that I could but "pray in this manner." The Spirit of God is infinitely free and sovereign in His communications, and independent on all the efforts, not less than the merits, of man. The language of the text speaks of this grace as one we may certainly possess and exercise: and there is nothing precarious in that character wherein that language would lead us to contemplate its communications. "I will pray with the Spirit."
1. One of the most necessary preparations for enjoying the grace and assistance of the Spirit in prayer is to feel its necessity; to cherish a deep and abiding sense of our own helplessness. Let this need be but devoutly acknowledged and the sense of it habitually felt, and there is no reason to fear that the grace we require will be denied us.
2. Another is, to desire it with sincerity and earnestness proportionate to our conviction of its importance; to address ourselves to the great work of prayer with an anxious wish that we may not worship in vain; to be concerned and solicitous that the duty may be rightly fulfilled and the blessings we implore actually obtained. We too often approach God in this exercise, but without an object. We come to pray, but not to seek sincerely an answer to our prayers.
3. Akin to this is another — the direct solicitation of this blessing, and that in the very commencement of our prayers, a practice which might seem prompted almost by decency itself, in public devotion, but which there is reason to fear is but too little observed in private.
4. In addition to these, we should endeavour to preserve a constant and humble expectation of the grace we need. It is due to the promises and to the faithfulness of God. It will do honour to His love and tenderness. It is an act resulting from the best and highest principles of piety.
5. We must also strive to retain, by every effort in our power, the effect of any Divine operation we have already experienced, and seek in the continuance and progress of our devotions, to fan and cherish the feeblest flame of love, or joy, or hope which may have begun to tremble within the breast, that it may burn with greater strength and brightness.
II. To consider what is meant by the apostle in the remaining portion of this passage; and TO SHOW THE NECESSITY AND NATURE OF THAT EXERCISE OF OUR FACULTIES IN PRAYER WHICH MAY BE PROPERLY DENOMINATED "PRAYING WITH THE UNDERSTANDING." Surely we are bound to render to our Maker the service of every faculty with which He has invested us. We are wholly His, and should seek to glorify Him in the consecration of all our being to His praise. It is not enough that the warmest of our affections are called forth if the highest of our capacities be not also filled with the desire and effort to advance His honour. We grant that the most short and momentary glancing of the soul upward to the throne, amidst the scenes of business or the dangers of temptation, is truly and often most successfully to pray; but we must not on this account permit ourselves to confine the acts of devotion to such sudden and casual addresses. There is danger of indulging, moreover, in too great a latitude of expression and feeling when we fail to attend to this most momentous subject. There is another evil resulting from this neglect. It is frequently imagined that when we have been unconscious in our prayers of an immediate agency of the Spirit upon our hearts, even though we have gone with the utmost seriousness and sincerity to the performance of this duty, we have failed in our design, and that it was not genuine prayer, whereas it may be that in these cases we have still cherished the most deep and sacred concern to approve ourselves to God. The influences of the understanding rightly exercised in reference to this great duty will be especially exhibited in four distinct respects. It will tend to give to our prayers the character of solemnity, appropriateness, comprehensiveness, and order.
1. It cannot fail to imbue them with solemnity. We should reflect on the grandeur of the Divine attributes and the unsearchable glories of the Divine essence, on the meanness and misery of man, on the wondrous scheme of reconciliation, till the sense of our own littleness will occupy every feeling of the soul, and we shall fail down with lowliest reverence before the majesty of our Creator.
2. With equal certainty it will next issue in the appropriateness of our petitions to our circumstances, to the present demand either of our external situation or our religious character. We shall be led to ask ourselves, What do I truly need? What are the difficulties I have now chiefly to apprehend? or the duties I am called especially to perform? Against what temptations am I warned to beware? or whence may they be expected principally to arise? And then our prayers will assume the aspect of our condition. We shall not waste our devotions on the general and customary topics that would equally accord with all varieties of experience, or rather have no special adaptation to any. Each day will furnish some of these varieties, and we shall be every day increasing in a facility and freedom which will add continually new interest and profit to the engagements of devotion.
3. Its next effect will be to give to these engagements a comprehensiveness as to the subjects we shall see it necessary to embrace which the most fervent piety would fail to present, without the correspondent efforts of reflection and serious thought. We shall not merely pray for ourselves, but for all with whom we are in any way connected.
4. Finally, this exercise of the understanding in respect to prayer will ensure to our devotions the important principle of order. Instead of a hurried incongruous effusion of petitions or praises, lamentations or expressions of humility and penitence, we shall, even in sacred retirement, and much more in the family, the social meeting, or the great congregation, perceive the necessity of method and of the just and decorous arrangement of the several parts of this great and solemn duty.
(R. S. McAll.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.